The Story Of Clarence Williams This Week On Riverwalk Jazz

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This week, Riverwalk Jazz looks at both sides of the Clarence Williams legacy. New Orleans’ Topsy Chapman and Broadway’s Vernel Bagneris lend their acting and vocal talents to this week's show as they join The Jim Cullum Jr. Jazz Band for Gulf Coast Blues: The Clarence Williams Story.

The program is distributed in the US by Public Radio International, on Sirius/XM satellite radio and can be streamed on-demand from the Riverwalk Jazz website.

Did he make a significant contribution as a jazz composer, or was he an opportunistic promoter and sometime song thief? Like the story of New Orleans itself, Clarence Williams is a study in opposites. There is no doubt that Williams was a great popularizer of jazz and created work for musicians—but it’s clear that he didn’t hesitate at times to take advantage of them financially.

Born on the Mississippi Delta in the late 1890s, pianist Clarence Williams was of Creole and Choctaw Indian heritage. He was a tireless promoter of jazz—at a time when the music was so new it wasn’t yet called jazz. And he formed one of the first jazz publishing companies with New Orleans bandleader A. J. Piron. Williams went on to produce and perform on hundreds of recordings with artists who became legends—Bessie Smith, Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Coleman Hawkins and more.

Even Clarence Williams’ critics acknowledge that he had a vision of what jazz could be all over the country. He worked hard—not only to make a name for himself—but for the music and all jazz musicians. However, Williams took composer credit on a long list of jazz standards, including “Royal Garden Blues,” “Squeeze Me,” “I Ain’t Gonna Give Nobody None of My Jelly Roll,” and “Tain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do.” Music scholars have repeatedly questioned whether he wrote these tunes, or simply put his name on them.

Williams has been accused of buying compositions from hard-up musicians at rock-bottom prices, then publishing their music under his own name—a common practice for publishers in the early days of the music business. Yet many of these artists acknowledged that he played an important role in popularizing their music and creating work for them.

The title track of this week's show, “Gulf Coast Blues,” is widely acknowledged as a genuine Clarence Williams composition, and was famously recorded as a duet in 1923, with Williams on piano and blues legend Bessie Smith on vocal.

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